The hills rise steeply on either side, towering over me, layer upon layer in the distance, the remnants of last weeks snow still clinging to the northern faces. Despite their steep sides and apparent inaccessibility the hillsides are marked by ridges, terraces cut into their impossibly steep sides. As the day unfolds and we pedal gradually southward, the valley continues to close inwards until we find ourselves in the depths of a stunning gorge.
At least I imagine it used to be stunning.
Now it is marked by the endless drive of progress. A new four lane expressway is being constructed down the middle of this narrow valley. It is an impressive piece of engineering. Viaduct after viaduct enables the soaring highway to weave its path through this tight landscape, the road cutting through tunnels where the hills fall too closely together. Scaffolding, diggers, temporary buildings and massive earthworks mark the efforts underway. The construction leaves the river brown and muddy, the landscape scarred to make way for the soaring overpasses. The construction works are still dwarfed by the sheer walls that rise around us and I can only imagine how pristine and breathtaking these valleys must once have been.
In the days that follow I don’t have to imagine.
We leave the expressway behind and wind our way deeper into one of the many other steep sided valleys that define this landscape. Here the road is narrow and quiet, the waters gradually running clearer as we pedal away from the construction. After covering a comfortable 80-km we are faced with a 10-km climb of steep switchbacks, where I have planned we will end our day at 93-km in a small mountain village marked on my map. But when 93-km arrives we find ourselves in a shaded area of steep hillside with not a single building in sight. It turns out relying on something existing at that small dot marked on one single map is not such a great navigational move. It is 5pm and with the altitude gain, the temperature is falling rapidly, along with the fading light. We decide the only way is forward, hopeful one of the other villages marked on the map will, in fact, turn out to exist.
A few kilometers later cultivated terraced fields appear and the smell of wood smoke drifts down the valley. Small buildings appear and we are beyond relieved when the first person we find agrees to take us in for the night. Her house is a simple concrete structure, but is spacious with a number of rooms. Our host lights the fire, an open hearth in a corner of one room, the smoke drifting upwards through the opening in the ceiling. We ask for hot water so we may eat our emergency rations of two-minute noodles, but she will not stand for it. Throwing lard into a wok, she peels and slices potatoes with a machete before setting a pot of rice over the fire. This generous stranger shares what she has, providing us steaming bowls of sloppy rice, fried potatoes with chilli, dried greens, fresh garlic and ginger. I am always amazed at how good food can taste when you are cold and tired from a long day of adventure.
I sit on a simple small stool to pen these words, warmed by the large bowl of fire ashes that have been placed at my feet, which I stir occasionally to keep alive. The light of the television provides a strange contrast to the environment I find myself in. The way of life in this tiny mountain village doesn’t appear to have changed much in the last few hundred years, fields cultivated by hand, subsistence living, the cooking basic and the days spent completing the tasks required to survive. And yet a television in one corner and an electric bulb suggest progress will inevitably find its mark here also.
I am reminded of a previous scene, of four elderly gentlemen sat around a rickety table in the golden afternoon sunlight, each holding what appear to be strips of wood as part of some game. As we pedaled past on that uncharacteristically warm November afternoon, I was struck by their relaxed engaged demeanors. There was a warmth in their circle. Laughter. A sense of time passing gently. Of life being done right. In contrast, my Instagram feed is laden with images of bright successful women. Icons of today that I am encouraged and inspired by. Women paving the way for equality, fighting injustice, being change makers. Their sparkling images and messages pull at me. I should be doing that. Chasing big things. Being somebody. Making a difference. Making my life count for something, being engaged in meaningful pursuits.
And then the memory of contented old men sat in the golden sunlight flits back into my mind. Time and again my mind returns to those men in that ramshackle Chinese village, for whom time was slow and laughter easy. There was truth and depth and simplicity in their small circle.
Is there a fallacy at work in the west? That in our relentless drive for progress we scar something that has such existing beauty, if only we would slow down enough to partake in it? I don’t know how to untangle its tentacles from my being, this thirst for success and improvement. But something in me clings to the lessons this slow journey is trying to teach me. The beauty that is found in the simplest elements of life, in the moments spent with one another. In the memory of an evening spent conversing without words around a bowl of warm ashes on a Chinese mountainside. In the image of elderly Chinese men chuckling as they huddled around their rickety table in the golden glow of the afternoon sun.
I am sure there is no answer here. Perhaps I must hold both in my hands equally as gently and let neither one nor the other dominate. And hope that somehow there, in holding the both, I may learn to revel in simple beauty, whilst also finding the courage to fight for that which I believe in.